Presently, it’s early May 2020 and I am sitting in one of the only coffee shops in Tokyo that remain open despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With little else to do over this year’s Golden Week, I’ve decided to spend as much time as I can writing to attenuate the boredom. While I can’t travel at all right now, producing content over an excessively large iced coffee seems to somehow put the wanderlust at bay. Given this lost nomad has quite literally nothing else to do for the coming days, I’ve elected to tackle all of Ibaraki Prefecture in a single go. Are you ready?
Now, Ibaraki gets a bit of a bad rap both overseas and in Japan. You see, though the prefecture is indeed home to a wide selection of great allures, there’s nothing that is so iconic that it entirely justifies a visit in and of itself. Perhaps a baseball metaphor says it best; Ibaraki’s attractions are a set of solid base hits. When taken in aggregate, they constitute a win but they lack the sex appeal of a one-off grand slam. In contrast to a prefecture such as Nara, with its widely recognizable deer park, Ibaraki hasn’t had the opportunity to develop much brand awareness overseas.
Before I give you the opportunity to retort, “But Donny, what about Hitachi Seaside Park?” understand that this gorgeous nature sanctuary is likely the only exception to the above. Furthermore, Hitachi Seaside Park is also typically considered a seasonal destination when the much celebrated azure nemophila are in bloom ( pictured above). Outside of this relatively brief period, few foreign tourists ever make it a priority to visit Hitachi Seaside Park. As we will see though, this is a real shame as the estate is truly quite beautiful all year-round.
So, without any further ado, let’s get on with the show. Know that this composition, like all of my other area guides, is going to be a wee bit on the long side. As such, you’d do well to grab yourself a delicious cup of coffee or glass of wine now to tide you over…
Getting to Ibaraki Prefecture
Let’s take a quick pause to first cover some key logistics. For those not already in the know, travel to Ibaraki prefecture is not a long distance from Tokyo. Ibaraki borders Fukushima to the north, Tochigi to the northwest, Saitama to the southwest, and Chiba to the south. As a result, you can easily reach Ibaraki from Japan’s capital in just a few hours. Though the limits of the prefecture can be easily reached from Tokyo, things get a bit more complicated once you’re in Ibaraki. You see, the prefecture is home to some of Japan’s biggest lakes thus the trains need to circumnavigate these colossal bodies of water. All in all, this leads to the prefecture being subdivided into pockets.
Given the inter-prefectural connections are a bit on the spotty side, Ibaraki is a prefecture that you really need to plan out well. For example, the means of getting to the capital city of Mito and to the ancient Kashima Jingu are divergently different. To plan your course, refer to the ever-helpful Hyperdia or a similar service. In the following sections, I’ll feature my personal selection of Ibaraki’s highlights but this will be done in a rather smorgasboard-type manner. As such, it will really be on you, the reader, to figure out the mechanics of getting to and from the locals that tickle your fancy the most.
Additionally, one other challenge with Ibaraki that I’ll mention here is that the prefecture is not well positioned to be explored en route to another destination. Unlike Nagoya (which is smack dab in the middle of Tokyo and Kyoto), you’ll likely not be able to continue traveling from Ibaraki to your next stopover. Instead, chances are high that you’ll need to first return to Tokyo before venturing elsewhere. WIth that said, I encourage visitors to stay in Ibaraki for a few days and explore more of what the prefecture has to offer.
Ibaraki Prefecture’s Mito & Kairaku-en
To kick off this dissertation on Ibaraki, let’s first begin with the capital city of Mito. Now, this is an area that I’ve covered in-depth already in this article so I won’t go too far into the weeds here. The abridged CliffsNotes version of my treatise can be summed up as such: Mito is a “Goldilocks” urban environment that is neither overly oppressive à la Tokyo nor too rural. This balance is hard to strike and not too many cities in Japan manage to thread the proverbial needle as well as Mito. Additionally, throughout the extent of Mito, you’ll find numerous cultural and historical allures that can satisfy any hardcore history buffs.
Of course, Mito’s real claim to fame is that the city is home to the exquisite Kairaku-en. Considered to be one of Japan’s top three gardens, this oasis of natural beauty can be found on Mito’s outskirts. Nestled against the banks of Mito’s Lake Senba, Kairaku-en can easily be reached on foot from the center of the city. Home to well over 3,000 plum trees, these traditional gardens are at their prime from late winter to early spring. When visiting, be sure not to miss out on the Kobuntei. This villa served as a home away from home for the local lords who once ruled this area.
Ibaraki Prefecture’s Oarai & the Shrine
One of the best things about visiting Japan is that it is home to many incredible Instagrammable sites. Oftentimes, these alluring scenes are so photogenic that they justify the requisite arduous trek to access remote areas. For example, Saga Prefecture is home to a divinely magnificent series of torii gates that frequently pop up on the Gram. Collectively called the “Floating Torii Gates of Ouo Shrine,” this trio of archways stands in the shallows of the Ariake Sea. While located in the middle of nowhere, this locale regularly draws foreign tourists.
Getting back to Ibaraki, know that this prefecture too boasts one of those hard-to-reach, Instaworthy spots. Known as Oarai Isosaki Shrine, this oceanside sepulchre is home to the breathtaking torii gate seen above. Found along a rocky shoreline bluff, this archway offers a deific glimpse into the world of the gods that will leave you entranced for hours. Alas, getting there will require you either hoof it all the way from Oarai Station or decipher how to navigate the infrequent buses.
Ibaraki Prefecture’s Hitachi Seaside Park
No feature on Ibaraki Prefecture would be complete without mentioning Hitachi Seaside Park. Likely the area’s most iconic attraction, this spacious expanse can be found a short distance from Mito. Spread across a sprawling 350 hectares, Hitachi Seaside Park is home to an amusement park as well as several cycling and walking trails. This bastion of nature can be reached via bus from Katsuura Station which is in turn, accessed from Mito by the JR Joban Line. All things considered, the entire journey should run approximately thirty minutes or so.
As previously mentioned, Hitachi Seaside Park is best known for its cerulean nemophila which blanket the park’s hillside during spring. As pretty as these flowers are though, it’s important that I set the record straight here. You see, these are not the only blossoms of note at Hitachi Seaside Park. In fact, no matter what season you visit, you’re practically guaranteed to find floras flaunting supreme beauty. For example, the crimson hues pictured above await those who tour the park during autumn. If you take nothing from this guide other than this, remember that Hitachi Seaside Park is a perennial attraction!
Ibaraki Prefecture’s Kashima Jingu
Dear reader, did you know that the famous deer of Nara originally hailed from Ibaraki’s Kashima Jingu? As the legend goes, when the capital of Japan was moved to Nara in 710, the powers that were ventured to the antediluvian Kashima Jingu. The purpose of their visit was to beseech the powerful deity Takemikazuchi who was enshrined there. If we are to believe the myth, this divinity was somehow convinced to uproot himself and move all the way down to Nara’s Kasuga Taisha. Allegedly, Takemikazuchi made the journey on the back of a great white stag and brought with him the deer found today roaming Nara Park.
Tales of the early mists of time aside, know that a visit to Kashima Jingu is actually one of my favorite day trips from Tokyo. Though it’s somewhat a logistically challenging journey, this ancient shrine always guarantees to put my mind at ease. Despite being located on the border of Chiba Prefecture in a remote corner of Ibaraki, I have made three pilgrimages to this shrine and I’m always pondering over my next trip. If you’re interested in learning more, check out my stand alone guide to Kashima Jingu. Considering the countless shrines and temples across Japan, Kashima Jingu is by far, one of my favorites.
Ibaraki Prefecture’s Ushiku Daibutsu
Standing at a gargantuan 120 meters Ushiku’s likeness of the Amida Buddha is truly a spectacle to behold. Originally completed in 1993, this statue held the title of the world’s tallest until 2018 when it forfeited the crown to an Indian effigy. Visitors to the Ushiku Daibutsu can actually venture inside the colossus where they will find a four-story museum. Additionally, you’ll find an elevator here that will take you to an observation deck. Located 85 meters above the ground towards the upper reaches of the statue, this lofty lookout provides commanding vantage points of the surrounding area.
Given it’s stature, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Ushiku Daibutsu is situated a little ways off the beaten path. At the end of the day, a statue of this size simply could not be erected in the middle of an otherwise bustling urban center. That said, the journey is well worth the sense of awe you’ll experience when gazing upon this mammothly sized edifice. If you’re interested in attempting the trek, take the JR Joban Line to Ushiku Station. From there, you’ll need to hop on a bus at Platform 2 and ride for about 30 minutes to the Ushiku Daibutsu stop.
Ibaraki Prefecture’s Mt. Tsukuba
Largely an unknown to international visitors, Mt. Tsukuba is often packaged together with Mt. Fuji due to its elegant appearance. In fact, there’s even a saying in Japanese that translated to something like “Fuji of the West and Tsukuba of the East.” Comparisons aside though, perhaps Mt. Tsukuba’s most unique characteristic is that the crag is said to change hues over the the course of the day. The peak is regularly describes as being indigo in the early morning, green in the afternoon and then purple at sunset. This oddity has garnered Mt. Tsukuba the nickname of the “purple mountain.”
One attraction you cannot miss on Mt. Tsukuba is the mountain’s dedicated shrine. Known as Tsukubasan Shrine (lit. “Mt. Tsukuba Shrine”), this establishment reveres the entirety of Mt. Tsukuba. Moreover, it allegedly has a legacy that dates back over 3,000 years. Assuming that the shrine’s claim to its historical pedigree is actually accurate, that would place Tsukubasan Shrine’s founding around the time of the ancient Israelite kings David and Solomon. Pause for a second and let that sink in. Often times, the area around Kyoto is thought of as “old Japan” but the eastern part of the Japanese archipelago has some truly old institutions and many of these are found in Ibaraki.
By the way, note that the area around Mt. Tsukuba is also home to JAXA’s Tsukuba Space Center. Since 1972, this has been the base for the country’s space development work. As such, you’ll encounter many homages to outer space while in town.
There’s Still More to Ibaraki Prefecture
Truth be told, I am only scratching the surface of what’s on offer in Ibaraki Prefecture with this exposé. There are numerous additional areas that I could elect to introduce, such as the Ami Premium Outlets, yet these venues don’t exactly align with my interests. To keep this article from devolving into an endless rant, I am going to just stay on brand and not feature these destinations. If you’re into bargain shopping or spending time outdoors, you’d do well to do some additional digging on your own as there remain many charms I chose to skip for brevity’s sake.
Before wrapping this one up though, I have one final tip for you readers. Basically, if you’re eager to learn more about Ibaraki though, I highly suggest you head on over to their official Facebook page. Though they are a relatively new to the social media scene, the people running the account seem like they are adamant about putting out informative and authentic content. Put simply, while I’ve indeed penned this brief primer on Ibaraki, there’s a lot more to learn about the prefecture if you’re interested.
Until next time travelers…